Praying Our Goodbyes

All Saints’ Church, Briarcliff Manor, NY

As I’ve been reflecting on the gospel for Sunday — Mark’s version of Jesus calming the sea — I remembered this was the text I preached on three years ago after announcing I would be leaving All Saints’ in Briarcliff Manor, New York. I had the privilege of serving there as rector for seven years and my leaving brought up lots of emotions for both me and the congregation.

Ending a pastoral relationship is never easy; it’s different from simply moving from one job to another. For better or worse, people’s spiritual lives are often wrapped up in their relationship with their priest and a priest’s identity is often wrapped up in their relationship with their parishioners. Leaving a congregation can feel like you’re forsaking a congregation. Even when you’re trying to be open and faithful to the call of the Spirit, feelings of anger, betrayal, and grief can abound on both sides.

I learned a lot through the process of saying goodbye, seeking always to be intentional about my leave-taking as opposed to “running through the thistles.” Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. But we’re also forever changed by the people we encounter on this journey of life and faith. I still keep the people of All Saints’ and their not-so-new-anymore rector in my prayers. Many of them had a profound effect on my ministry and that never fades away.

I rarely post sermons on my blog, but here’s that sermon I preached at All Saints’.

A  Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 21, 2009 (Proper 7, Year B)

When I was about ten-years-old my dad rented a sailboat and took the family out for a leisurely afternoon jaunt around the Inner Harbor of Baltimore. Some of my father’s earliest childhood memories were sailing on the Long Island Sound and he had recently started taking sailing lessons at the Getaway Sailing School. He loved being out on the water and naturally wanted to share this with his two sons. So why did it feel like I was about to board the SS Minow?

My mom was less keen on this whole family adventure but she packed a picnic basket and we headed down to the launch site to claim our 18-foot Bluenose. After adjusting our life jackets and a quick lesson about ducking when the boom swings around, we were ready to take to the high seas. And things started out pretty smoothly. The gentle breeze took us out into the middle of the harbor, the sun was shining, my brother and I argued over who was the First Mate, but the freedom of gliding through the water was amazing.

Until the clouds started moving in and the wind picked up. Since it would add to the story, I’d like to tell you there was a massive storm with gale-force winds. But there wasn’t. It did get a bit windier but the problem was that the bow line somehow got caught or tangled and suddenly my father couldn’t control the boat as it started heeling drastically to one side. Water rushed over the sideboards, my mother screamed, our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were washed out to sea, and I remember wondering if this was indeed the end. The whole scenario probably took less than a minute before my dad was able to get things straightened out but the horror of it all is seared into my psyche.

It’s in moments of panic or sheer terror, like the one the disciples experienced out on the Sea of Galilee or the one I experienced on the gentle waters of the Inner Harbor, that our first instinct is rarely to put our trust in God. Fear paralyzes us and all we can think about is survival. The natural reaction is to cling to a life vest rather than to Jesus. Because trust is the rarest commodity during times of trial and tribulation. The disciples cry out, “Jesus, don’t you even care that we’re about to die!” And we get this almost comical moment of contrast between the fear and frenzy of the disciples versus the absolute calm and tranquility of Jesus as he sleeps in the back of the boat.

But it’s understandable because trust tends to go out the window or out to sea in moments of uncertainty. There is a lack of trust that Jesus would see the disciples through the storm. Despite his presence the disciples didn’t believe he could or would help them. But of course it’s precisely his presence that is the ultimate source of comfort no matter whether the storm continues to rage or ceases completely. He’s there for them.

But meanwhile Jesus is trying to get a little shut eye. Trying to get a bit of rest after a long day of preaching and teaching. And you can just imagine his annoyance here: “You woke me up for this? Can’t a guy get a nap in around here?”

And I admit it sometimes does feel as if Jesus is asleep at the wheel. Sometimes when we need him most, it feels as if he’s not available to us. That he’s not paying attention to our needs; that he doesn’t care. And yet those are the times when he is most clearly present. It’s us who often become blinded by the storms and trials and tribulations of this life. Life swirls and rages, fear takes hold, and we fail to see the living Christ in our midst. We fail to see him calmly resting in the stern. We’ll see his presence in retrospect, perhaps, but rarely in the midst of the storm at hand.

The subtext for this particular community of faith is, of course, the departure of its rector. As I announced this week, I have accepted a call to a church in Massachusetts. And so All Saints’ is entering a time of transition and uncertainty. Anxiety and a sense of un-rootedness is a natural response to major change. And as the initial emotions swirl it can feel precisely like the tempest we read about this morning on the Sea of Galilee. The feelings of abandonment and betrayal are real. And it feels as if waves are beating against the sides of the boat and swamping it with water.

Yet, as in this story, Jesus is present. Anchoring us, guiding us, blessing us through this particular storm. And when we call upon him he will indeed calm the waters of our souls. Know that he will not leave you orphaned, he will not forsake you, he will be with you until the ends of the earth.

With three words, Jesus calms both the sea and the disciples’ anxiety: “Peace! Be still!” He becomes the calm in the midst of the storm. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t a storm; it just means that if we look inward Jesus stands at the core or our being even in the midst of the storm. Storm and calm are not mutually exclusive. If we go through life waiting for complete stillness we’ll go through life in great disappointment. Because life is really a series of storms; some smaller and some larger. So it’s not a matter of silencing the storm as much as it is recognizing God’s abiding presence in the midst of the storms that confront us. Allowing Jesus to provide the steady hand despite what rages. In other words, Jesus didn’t promise us perfect peace and tranquility in this life; he didn’t promise that there wouldn’t be any storms in this life; but he did promise us that he would be present in the midst of them. And that hope and assurance is at the very heart of the Christian life and faith.

And thus in this passage from Mark you could say that a literal “sea change” has taken place. A radical, profound, and mystical change in the water, the weather, and the hearts of the disciples. When you substitute the word transformation for “sea change” you get the idea of the power of Jesus Christ. Similarly we are going through a sea change at All Saints’, one that I am confident will lead to such transformation. It’s interesting to note that the phrase “sea change” first appears in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Ariel sings, “Full fathom five thy father lies: Of his bones are coral made: Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade: But doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange.” We are entering something “rich and strange” around here; things will soon be different. But I also trust that through this sea change new and good things will arise. In the days ahead, let Jesus be that calm in the midst of the storm both in your own life and here at this wonderful parish of All Saints’.

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